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How Any Brand, Large or Small, Can Effectively Partner With Influencers

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Ask and you shall receive! We did a survey of our audience a few months back, and the number one requested topic was influencer marketing. And for good reason! Influencer marketing has infiltrated every industry and has the ability to drive large ROI if done correctly. But many new or smaller brands are wondering if they can take part in this marketing channel. And the answer is yes! Eric Lam, is the co-founder of AspireIQ, and he is here to explain how the industry has become democratized and any brand can take part in it, as long as they go about it the right way.

On this episode of Up Next in Commerce, he gets into all of that and more, including why he bet big on the idea of influencers when it was still a radical idea used mostly by large companies with large celebrities. 

Today, Eric says that there are certain mistakes that many companies are making when it comes to working with influencers, and he details exactly how you should go about measuring the ROI from your influencer strategy. Plus, Eric explains why he thinks platforms like TikTok are undervalued and he predicts the future of how the world of influencer marketing will grow.

Main Takeaways:

  • Can I See Your Manager?: One of the biggest challenges of influencer marketing is managing the various influencers you work with and the logistics of tracking and shipping the products your influencers are promoting. Building a platform and communication structure that solves that problem is what sets influencer community management companies apart.  
  • The ROI of the Storm: Understanding the attribution funnel of influencer marketing is a key metric to determine the ROI of your efforts. But what if there are other aspects of the partnership that should be considered, that many brands are missing?
  • Democracy Now: Part of what social media has done is democratize content creation. Previously, brands and those with money were in control of what content was created, when, and who could see it. Now, individuals have the same capabilities in the palms of their hands, which not only leads to better content, but opens the door to revenue streams and opportunities for regular people to become influencers.

For an in-depth look at this episode, check out the full transcript below. Quotes have been edited for clarity and length.

Key Quotes:

“The industry evolved to where everybody was trying to work with Kardashians and it was all about working with the biggest fashion bloggers, the biggest celebrities — the bigger, the better. And you’re thinking about these vanity metrics like how many followers someone has, or how many likes they have, regardless of if they saw meaningful returns on investment. Those were the early cowboy days of influencer marketing. Because a lot of the mainstream brands got involved there, you started to then see an evolution of how a lot of the DTC, and ecommerce brands were starting to think about influencer marketing because they were getting priced out of these big macro celebrities. So, they started honing in on more specialized micro-influencers, who might not have as big of a following, but they were a lot more targeted, a lot more focused in the concept they created, which meant they were a great fit for more personalized experiences, more authentic content in terms of the segments they were trying to reach among their customers.”

“Ecommerce brands started using influencers for more than just trying to reach their audiences like in an advertising way, and they started looking at them as holistic content creators. Because when you think about what an influencer is, they’re kind of like this studio photographer, model all wrapped into one person, whose literal job it is to make engaging content for this generation. These brands started re-purposing a lot of their content and using it in all their different channels, from paid advertising, to ecommerce website, to email marketing and more because content became this King of everything they wanted to do across digital.” 

“Today, you’re looking at even more long-tail influencers, and even people that aren’t considered traditional social media influencers, but are really important to the brands and their strategies from a marketing perspective. Brands might be building programs where they’re combining influencers, but they’re also combining those with top customers, power users, experts, working professionals who do customer referrals, whichever groups of people who have the greatest word of mouth impact on the customers and trying to win them over, regardless of if they have a social media following or not. I think it’s a really exciting phase of influencer marketing we’re heading into, where it really includes, even democratizes, where brands are looking for these authentic voices, no matter where they come from.”

“If you can find people that really match your brand values and are going to be true advocates for you, that really translates into the authenticity, both from what they’re saying, but also the kind of content they make because influencer marketing is pretty mature now and audiences can smell inauthenticity from a mile away.”

“Influencer marketing sits at this unique intersection of brand and performance marketing where it’s a little bit of both. If you’re looking at only one or only the other one, you’re undervaluing what you have in your influencer program.”

“When you’re talking about the bigger brands in the industry, the Fortune 500 brands, a lot of them struggle with the idea of merging their influencer strategy with their creative strategy, because they typically have this really rigid process of guidelines and brand safety that they apply usually to $25,000 to $50,000 photoshoots, and they want to apply that same framework to influencers…. At the end of the day, that just doesn’t work because people are smart. Consumers are smart. Consumers know when something is super forced and inauthentic. At the end of the day, the whole point of working with influencers is that you’re co-creating a narrative. You’re supposed to be harnessing the personality and the creativity that’s unique to each person, and by forcing them to kind of fit in this tightly defined box that is so clearly branded, that just leads to poor performing content.”

“Not enough brands understand that TikTok has this enormous breadth and depth of not only audiences, but content creators.”

Mentions:

Bio:

Eric is a co-founder and President of AspireIQ. Previously, Eric was VP Product at Pocket Gems, where he led a 60-person team that generated $80 million in annual app revenue. Eric has an MBA from Harvard and a computer science degree from Brown.

Up Next in Commerce is brought to you by Salesforce Commerce Cloud. Respond quickly to changing customer needs with flexible Ecommerce connected to marketing, sales, and service. Deliver intelligent commerce experiences your customers can trust, across every channel. Together, we’re ready for what’s next in commerce. Learn more at salesforce.com/commerce

Transcript:

Stephanie:

Welcome to the Up Next In Commerce Podcast, I’m your host, Stephanie Postles. Co-Founder at mission.org. Today, we’re talking all things influencers, but the co-founder of AspireIQ, Eric Lam. Eric, nice to meet you.

Eric:

Great to meet you as well. Thanks for having me.

Stephanie:

Yeah, I’m excited to have you on so no pressure, but we did a survey of our audience, and the number one thing that everyone wanted to hear about was influencers. Early, like we got dozens of responses of [crosstalk 00:00:32].

Eric:

Love to hear it.

Stephanie:

Yeah. This is the perfect interview.

Eric:

Fantastic. Well, that’s really helpful for me to hear, especially for my team work in sales.

Stephanie:

There you go. Tell me a little bit about what is AspireIQ.

Eric:

We’re a platform for brands to build and engage communities of influential people from traditional social media influencers to top customers and brand fans to experts and more. We actually started back in 2013. Even though it’s mainstream now, back then, influencer marketing was a pretty new concept. Frankly, the idea of businesses using Instagram back then in a meaningful way was pretty rare. Of course, now 93% of brands and kind of based on your survey, it sounds like that’s increasing, are using influencer marketing as a core part of their digital and social media strategies, and we’re lucky to be partnered with over 300 brands on the platform from some of the biggest names like Samsung to leading [inaudible] brands like Glossier and Purple Mattress.

Stephanie:

Amazing. Tell me a little bit, how is the platform design? If I’m a new customer, what would I experience when I enter a platform and what do I get out of it?

Eric:

Yeah. Even back in the day, I think pretty much from the beginning, some of the biggest problems we’ve tried to solve in influencer marketing have come down to three parts, finding the right influencers to work with in terms of creating content and promoting your brand, to managing the complex workflow between your brand and potentially hundreds of influencers in your community, to analyzing the impact of these influencer communities on your marketing goals. I think that where we’ve really made our bread and butter is that second one, the building workflow. That’s because if any of your listeners have built influencer marketing programs, and actually in our early days, probably our first two years, we didn’t have our own software, so we experienced this ourselves when we were running influencer campaigns for our clients.

Eric:

The real work that goes into this is all the communication and the cumbersome project management, the data organization, the contracts, the product shipping, the payments, and just keeping track of all this stuff in one place, especially if you’re working with more than, say 10 influencers at a given time, like that’s where the real work is. That’s where we really focused on building a platform that can provide meaningful scale to clients building this in a sophisticated way. I think at this point, we’ve got a range of sophistication levels from fortune 500 companies who have seven different teams working across different countries with outside agencies and the corporate office, to some of the biggest DTC brands in the world who have kind of built their secret sauce in influencer marketing, and almost need to design this customized system within our platform for how to do influencer marketing. So, it’s come a long way in terms of the sophistication level that a lot of our clients have had.

Stephanie:

That’s awesome. Since 2013, what kind of shifts in the market have you seen? Because when I think about influencers, especially back in the day, it’s like, if you don’t have a Kardashian, you don’t have an influencer. Now it seems like way more about like micro influencers who have a trusted audience and people actually buy what they want. What kind of things have you seen like shifts in the market?

Eric:

Yeah, it’s evolved in a lot of different, really interesting ways. You’re exactly right. I think in the early days, well, frankly in the really early days, when we first started, almost no one was doing influencer marketing, which was obviously tough for our business because we were trying to go to every brand and convince them to spend even like a hundred bucks on an influencer.

Stephanie:

They’re like, no, thanks. Out of budget.

Eric:

Yeah. I think that was already like pulling teeth. I think, back then, I think the only brands doing this were probably these emerging ecommerce brands where … they can’t compete on traditional advertising, so Instagram had become this place where they discovered already consumers were coming there to learn about what to buy, what to do, where to go. That was true, even though back then Instagram wasn’t this kind of commercialized or sponsor place the way it is today. But even in our early days, what kept us going is that we talked to so many ecommerce brands and consistently what we heard was the biggest channel that they were focusing on was social media and specifically influencer marketing.

Eric:

Then I think, yeah, after a few years, maybe like 2015 and 2016, the industry kind of evolve to what you were talking about, where everybody was trying to work with Kardashians. It was all about working with the biggest fashion bloggers, the biggest celebrities. The bigger, the better. And you’re thinking about these vanity metrics, like how many followers someone has, or how many likes they have, regardless of if they saw meaningful returns on investment. Those were the early cowboy days of influencer marketing. I think because of a lot of the mainstream brands got involved there, you started to then see an evolution of how a lot of the DTC, a lot of ecommerce brands were starting to think about influencer marketing because they were kind of getting priced out of these big macro celebrities.

Eric:

So, they started honing in on more specialized micro influencers, like you mentioned, who, they might not have as big of a following, but they were a lot more targeted, a lot more focused in the concept of created, which meant they were a great fit for more personalized experiences, more authentic content in terms of the segments they were trying to reach among their customers. I think the second thing that was really interesting about the way this evolved is that these same ecommerce brands started using influencers for more than just trying to reach their audiences like in an advertising way, and they started looking at them as holistic content creators, because when you think about what an influencer is, they’re kind of like this studio photographer model all wrapped into one person, whose literal job it is to make engaging content for this generation.

Eric:

These brands started re-purposing a lot of their content and using it in all their different channels, from paid advertising, to ecommerce website, to email marketing and more because content became this King of everything they wanted to do across digital. Today, I think that’s kind of even more the case where you’re looking at even more long tail influencers, and even people that aren’t considered traditional social media influencers, but are really important to the brands and their strategies from marketing perspective. Brands might be building programs where they’re combining influencers, but they’re also combining those with top customers, power users, experts, working professionals who do customer referrals, whichever groups of people who have the greatest word of mouth impact on the customers and trying to win over, regardless of if they have a social media following or not. I think it’s a really exciting phase of influencer marketing we’re heading into, where it really includes, even democratize, where brands are kind of looking for these authentic voices, no matter where they come from.

Stephanie:

Yep. I love that. Yeah, I was just going to say, it feels like now there’s so much more opportunity for anyone to have an influencer if you find the right person, whereas before, not so much. But if you’re thinking about finding an influencer in your space or finding someone to partner with or using your platform to find some, what kind of metrics would you look at to make sure they’re a good fit? What should a brand be looking for to be like, “ah, this is my perfect person?”

Eric:

Yeah. I think a lot of it comes down to what the goals of this influencer program is. But I think, at the end of the day, a lot of that comes down to subjective type of qualities. Obviously, you can see if they have a big following, you can see if they have really high engagement rates, but at the end of the day, you want to look at, what are people talking about in their comment section? What’s the type of narrative they’re kind of build with their audience? And does that really resonate with the type of nuanced audience segment that you’re trying to build with your audiences? Because that tells you a lot about how they’re going to co-create this narrative with you.

Eric:

That’s really what we tell people when we give them advice is, you should really be building relationships with these influencers and treat them as a part of your community rather than looking at it as a transaction. I think that one of the biggest mistakes I see a lot is that, people will look at influencer marketing almost as like buying ad space, and it’s really not like buying ad space because content creators are people.

Stephanie:

Yeah, these are people.

Eric:

Yeah, these are people who have these like nuanced feelings about the content they make, what they feel comfortable with, what’s authentic to them. This is like their livelihood. Communicating with that level of empathy is really important, and if you can find people that really match your brand values and are going to be true advocates for you, that really translates into the authenticity, both from what they’re saying, but also the kind of content they make because influencer marketing is pretty mature now and audiences can smell inauthenticity from a mile away. So, it matters a lot to find people that really believe in your brand.

Stephanie:

How do you go about making sure that a relationship is built on your platform and that someone’s not just going through and being like, “Okay, bye. I want this.” How do you develop or encourage a relationship to be built before they start working together?

Eric:

Yeah, I think a lot of times, frankly, sometimes it starts not necessarily with a kind of a official collaboration or with an official contract or anything like that. A lot of brands, what they do is they’ll do what’s called product seeding, and they’ll send these gift bags out to influencers or micro influencers. A lot of people try out the products. If they like the products, they’ll have them give feedback, they’ll invite them to some events, they’ll have them be part of some community activities before they really kind of like level them up into true ambassadors for the brand that have these more formalized contracts and agreements and payment structures and things like that. I think, obviously not all of that is necessary, but it kind of creates this much more organic experience, where ambassadors almost like come to you or are built with you, rather than just saying to every person, hey, we’ve got this $10,000 campaign and here you go, who wants the money? Kind of going based on much more of a transactional experience.

Eric:

That’s one way to go. I think other ways to go are influencers who can come to you and are creating a more of an inbound experience. What we see a lot is brands setting up kind of these programs and looking for new ambassadors and new influencers to the program. A lot of times those might be smaller, but getting people to kind of sign up when they’re small, when they have smaller followings is a great way to almost like build this farm system of up and coming influencers that are working with you in their early days so that when they become really big and famous. Obviously they’ve been kind of long-term supporters, long-term advocates of your brand for quite a while.

Stephanie:

Yep. That’s great. Yeah, I think I’ve mentioned a few times in different episodes that I was … I forget who I was listening to, where they’re discussing influencers and how to pick them, but they said you should zero in on the comments and how their followers are actually engaging, because if they’re engaging in one way where it’s just like, oh, that’s pretty, I like that shirt or something, that might not actually be an influential person you should work with versus someone who’s saying, “Where can I buy that shirt right now?” If you see a lot of that in the comments, even if they’re small, like they have people waiting to buy whatever they wear. I thought that was always a good reminder.

Eric:

Yeah, totally. I think that a lot of times, that that comes from some of these smaller influencers, because they’re so focused on the type of content they make and their audiences really trust them with that messaging. I think a lot of influencers just understand that when they take these sponsorship deals, they’re doing it in a way where they really need to make sure it looks, and it is the fact that they really care about this brand. They believe in the values, they believe in the product. I think audiences are really attuned to that, and I think they can pick up on that.

Stephanie:

Yep. I agree. In previous episodes, we’ve had a lot of guests tell us that it’s been really hard to accurately measure the ROI of an influencer campaign. A couple of people have tried it or quite a few of them have tried it, but they just didn’t know if they got the results or they didn’t know how long until I see results. What do you advise around, how do you make sure to measure things in a way that you can see an ROI or not, and when should they expect to see some kind of success?

Eric:

Yeah, that’s a great question. Yeah, it is actually challenging. I think it’s because, the reason is because I think influencer marketing sits at this unique intersection of brand and performance marketing where it’s a little bit of both. I think if you’re looking at as only one or only the other one, you’re almost like undervaluing what you have in your influencer program. We actually have this internal marketing strategy team that works with all of our clients, and their job is basically to design this type of thing. Like, how are you going to measure the overall ROI of your program? Because it’s so unique to every client. In terms of brand awareness, obviously that stuff is relatively straight forward. Like, how many views am I getting? How many video minutes are watched? How much engagement there are? What’s the audience demographics that I’m trying to reach?

Eric:

Obviously this is an ecommerce podcast, so most people are interested in, how am I generating sales? That’s where it gets really interesting, because like you said, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to build the full attribution funnel for influencer marketing. Why is that? It’s because all of this content sits somewhere that isn’t pixel. It sits not on your own channel, and not even on your own Facebook. It sits on the influencer’s Instagram page or their YouTube, and not all the time there’s easy ways to click out of links. What we typically do is we build a combination of indirect and direct metrics to give you a sense of how your program is performing. There’s definitely lots of ways to measure direct conversions. There’s link tracking, coupon code redemptions, affiliate links, landing page sign-ups.

Eric:

Typically, those are very good ways of seeing directly attributable sales. Especially if you’ve built kind of this really great long tail of ambassadors who are all doing, like I said, whether your product seeding them, you’re seeding them these gaskets, and you’re not necessarily asking for anything, where you’re building potentially hundreds or thousands of ambassadors who are … you might not have a ton of following, but they really believe in the product and they’re kind of posting about you. You’ll start to see a lot of return in terms of referrals on that program, just based on kind of their channels clicking into those links and go into your website and buying things, something like that. But a lot of the times, when you’re talking about influencer posts, because there’s not an easy way to click out of this, of the posts, we tend to look at more indirect measures because a lot of times what happens is a consumer sees a post, they see the brand and then they exit to a browser and they go directly to the website.

Eric:

We say is that, hey, look at the indirect measures like referral sources from social channels, and that includes things like the Instagram shopping and checkout, which Facebook is investing a ton of money into all types of ways of commercializing your social channels. Then of course, there’s the value of the content itself, which has been really interesting. Like I said, a lot of ecommerce brands are looking at these influencers as content creation vehicles, and so there’s obviously the cost that it would’ve cost to create, potentially hundreds of purpose-built photos and videos, but what’s even more is, what’s the value of having 10 times the number of assets to personalize all these digital customer journeys from your paid ads, your ecommerce, your email marketing, and almost always what we see is our performance marketing clients will have an overall increase in their ROAS, but thanks to this kind of ongoing pipeline of constant.

Eric:

I think the last one that’s super interesting thing has been really game changing over the last couple of years is actually using influencer channels themselves as paid ad vehicles. There’s actually … obviously there’s easy functionality to boost posts that perform well, but there’s actually, for in channels like Instagram, if an influencer has a business account, there’s an option to grant advertiser access to a third party so that you can actually run a wide diversity of paid ads using the influencers content, where the ads are coming from the influencers channel themselves. This actually gives marketers almost this infinite number of channels to test on and has been an absolute game changer for brands looking to build more sophisticated paid social strategies. All those things are kind of like in combination, obviously are this complex web of how do you value the ROI of an influencer, but it’s because there’s this huge diversity of the ways that you could utilize them depending on your marketing strategy.

Stephanie:

That’s great. Yeah. That’s a really good summary, especially that last point. I don’t think I have heard that, or I was not aware that you could leverage their accounts and kind of post from under their accounts. Yeah, that seems to be interesting.

Eric:

Yeah, it’s little known, but it’s become a lot more popularized, I think recently. Obviously you want to make sure that you have a firm agreement with the influencer. This is something that in our platform we kind of wrap up in a bow for you to be able to request, but obviously you’re using their content, you’re getting the right approvals from them, so they don’t have their channel advertising to people or using content that they’re not comfortable with. But assuming that they are, it’s actually a win-win for both parties, because essentially what’s happening is, as a brand, you’re kind of leveraging them as a voice for your brand to kind of new audiences. For them, they’re reaching new audiences themselves and in a way that can kind of get them more followers and more reach.

Stephanie:

Yeah, that’s great. I could see there being a bit of like, making sure that whatever you write is in their voice, or is it like pretty transparent that this is a brand takeover of their account?

Eric:

I think it’s typically a collaboration, and a lot of times what we’ll advise is that, definitely having the influencer sign off on all the language and making sure that they’re comfortable with what they’re saying, because you don’t want to get … definitely don’t want to misrepresent what they’re saying, and it is in a partnership between brand and creator.

Stephanie:

Yep. Got it. All right. A little story time. First, we’ll start with, what are some of the biggest missteps that you’ve seen brands experience when they’ve tried to set up their own influencer partnerships? What are some horror stories that you’ve heard in the industry? You know I like failure.

Eric:

Yeah, definitely I think a couple of common things that I see, and again, they kind of relate to this idea that, hey, these influencers are ads basically, and that leads to behaviors, like I said about not building relationships. I talked about that one already, but I think another one is basically taking too risk averse of an approach in the creative process. I won’t name specific brands, but I think, especially when you’re talking about like the bigger brands in the industry, the Fortune 500 brands, a lot of them struggle with the idea of kind of like merging their influencer strategy with their creative strategy, because they typically have this really rigid process of guidelines and brand safety that they apply usually to kind of $25,000 to $50,000 photo shoots, and they want to apply that same framework to influencers.

Eric:

And they’re like, cool. They have to do this set of 20 guidelines, they have to check all these boxes in terms of what they’re going to say, they have to say it in this way, and in this tone. At the end of the day, that just doesn’t work because people are smart. Consumers are smart. Consumers know when something is super forced and inauthentic. At the end of the day, the whole point of working with influencers is that you’re co-creating a narrative. You’re supposed to be harnessing the personality and the creativity that’s unique to each person, and by forcing them to kind of fit in this tightly defined box that is so clearly branded, that just leads to poor performing content. It’s kind of defeating the purpose of using influencers in the first place. I would say that’s the biggest misstep I tend to see, and it is typical among, I would say like the bigger brands in the industry.

Stephanie:

Got it. I could see brands, especially smaller ones, trying to find, of course, untapped influencers. What industries do you think there are a bunch of influencers that maybe you guys haven’t even tapped into, and what’s maybe bringing this question about, as I just did a recap episode with one of my coworkers around like the first 50 episodes, and we were talking about shoppable gaming and unreal and how there’s influencers in these game worlds and how shopping is going to be in there soon. I was like, oh, it seems like there could be a lot of virtual influencers that maybe aren’t tapped, but are there any industries like that where you’re like, oh, we’re exploring this or we see this being big in the future, but we haven’t actually fully gotten it yet?

Eric:

Yeah. Well, I would say, even though it’s been incredibly popularized in the last year or so, I would say TikTok is still wildly undervalued. I think not enough brands understand that TikTok has this enormous breadth and depth of not only audiences, but content creators, because I’m 38 years old and I look at a lot of like Parenting TikTok, I look at a lot of the Home Depot TikTok. It’s so different than I think most perceptions are of, oh, it’s just funny videos or teenagers dancing and things like that, because there’s such a diversity of content and audience within TikTok that I think only a handful of brands are really taking advantage of. That’s definitely, I would say a big focus for us going forward, is kind of getting in deep with tech talk and making sure that our brands can be successful there.

Eric:

I would say more to specifically your question around industries, I would say a lot of industries that we’ve seen that have kind of more emerging, I would say “influencers,” not necessarily traditionally defined influencers, are more like professional fields. For example, one of my friends from business school named Trina Spear, she’s founded this company FIGS Scrubs. I think they’ve had the strategy probably for … maybe since they were founded, where they’ve almost created influencers out of nurses and doctors where, when they first started, there were no nurse influencers or doctor influencers or anything like that. But they started partnering with all these people that could just create really great content, and they might just be people in that professional field people that might have 500 followers, but posted really cool content and they would send the product, get them involved, get them bought into the mission and the vision of the brand.

Eric:

Now a lot of those people, they have tens of thousands of followers because of the partnership they’ve done with FIGS, and FIGS is an incredibly popular brand among the healthcare industry now, and has a really, really loyal following across … up and down nurses and doctors and everything else.

Stephanie:

That’s really cool. Yeah, I think we had FIGS on our list. I have to check with Hillary on that, but I think we had them potentially coming on maybe so. Yeah, that’s really cool to hear how they do that.

Eric:

They’re great. I look forward to listening to that one.

Stephanie:

Cool. How do you onboard new influencers, and who are some names of people that I would know? Because even though it’s kind of vanity, I’m sure everyone listening is like, well, who are some names that I would know in your platform?

Eric:

Yeah. Interestingly, we don’t really take that kind of approach when it comes to influencers, because a lot of times our influencers are brand-driven. What we try to do is we try to provide a system of record and a platform for our brands to manage all of their influencer programs themselves. This is actually an industry choice we’ve made, I think back in the founding of the company, where we decided pretty early that we were not going to win based on us having the most influencers or us having access to talent agencies or communities of people, because frankly, we were basically four guys who came from either a gaming company or a hedge fund, and so we were not going to win based on who we knew.

Eric:

What we decided to do is we said, okay, what we’re going to do is we’re going to build a platform that has incredible workflow and ability to scale up these influencer programs and have brands build the tools they need to manage them, and those brands will essentially onboard and essentially, almost onboard the influencers onto our platform themselves. It’s actually played out pretty well where we now have hundreds of thousands of influencers on the platform. I think in a 95% of cases, those influencers were brought by some brand that we had on our platform who essentially invited those influencers themselves to the AspireIQ platform. This has been a really great way of feeding.

Stephanie:

Oh, that’s smart.

Eric:

… a marketplace where when … in [inaudible] teach about like, when you start a marketplace, you have to create standalone value for one of the sides, and that was our [inaudible] standalone value for the brands that they would essentially attract the influencers to the platform because we just didn’t have them.

Stephanie:

Let’s talk about the early days a little bit. I saw that you had worked at Pocket Gems, and I think it said you led a very large team who was mostly accountable for like 80 million in annual revenue. I want to hear a bit about your background and what you did at Pocket Gems that maybe helped influence AspireIQ.

Eric:

Yeah. I started my career in finance actually before business school, which is really disappointing for my dad because my dad was a computer science professor, so I didn’t get into technology immediately the way that he wanted. But yeah, after business school, I went to Pocket Gems. Yeah, started as a product manager, built a couple of games there. Pocket Gems, for some background, is a mobile app gaming company. Really, it was an incredible experience because gaming, especially back then, I mean, you think about like, this pre-Zynga IPO and all the kind of the rise of mobile gaming, and everything was extremely data-driven and fast paced. It was a great environment to learn about how to build products that can grow and scale really quickly.

Eric:

But I think the biggest thing it taught me was essentially how much mobile and social were going to change the world, and pretty much changed the world so much more than I had ever conceptualized, I think, before joining, in almost a similar way with the way the internet changed everything in the late ’90s. It’s because of the fact that we have this super computer in our pockets that’s like a high-definition video camera that makes any of this stuff possible. I think, as we were building games there, as we were building apps, as we were doing user acquisition, I could tell, based on the things that were working and the channels that we were working for, for our own growth, that all this was happening here organically. When you looked at social media, everyone can create this amazing content that’s just as relevant and meaningful as what’s done in studio, and it’s completely democratized, giving a voice to anybody with a mobile phone and social media.

Eric:

I wanted to work on something following that, that could take advantage or basically capitalize on the fact that the world is essentially changing from what I call companies to people. Because when you open your phone, you look at most content nowadays, chances are it’s something that a regular person made. It’s not a company. It was kind of obvious, at the time, to a lot of us that were founding the company that people were going to be at the center of how these businesses or brands were built. That’s what we were focused on doing. We didn’t have it all figured out in terms of what we would do or the product we would build. We started with social media and went from there, but we just knew it was around this idea that brands and building a brand, building a marketing strategy needed to be much more people oriented, and around this idea that mobile and social were going to change the world.

Stephanie:

When you launched into aspire IQ, what were some maybe hiccups or missteps that you guys made in the beginning when trying to figure out this marketplace and building the platform, anything happened there of note?

Eric:

Yeah, it was funny because again, it was for people who didn’t come from the marketing industry and we’re trying to get into … which I think, when I gave people advice, people would always ask me like, “Hey, are you going to … should I start this company? I really want to do a startup.” A lot of times the advice I give is, “Look, if this is something you have to do, it shouldn’t matter what I say, that you’re going to do it.” I think this was really interesting thing where we all had this intense belief that this was going to be a thing, that this would work, even though none of us had come from the industry. I think, because none of us had come from the industry, that really put us at this disadvantage for, who to talk to. We were really scrapping trying to find our first sales and talk to any ecommerce brands that would listen to us, talk to any brands that would listen to us.

Eric:

It was such early days that we couldn’t even charge any money for the product we made. We built this product in about a year, and we basically had to give it away for free because people just didn’t value it. They didn’t understand why they should pay a platform for influencer marketing. I think we actually had to create … is really funny. In our first outreaches to influencers even, we were trying to scrape together these first influencer campaigns where we had to pretend that we were the platform, but actually underneath, it was just the four of us trying to run and match-make with different influencers. But we were saying like …

Stephanie:

[crosstalk] service.

Eric:

Yeah, but we were saying like, oh yeah, there’s something really like technological going on under the hood. Don’t worry [inaudible] the brands. But it was actually just us trying to run the different influencers saying, “Hey, look, can you please join this campaign?” We had to use the pseudonym actually, because nobody would respond to our emails among influencers. They didn’t believe that we were a real company. We had to use pseudonyms of people that sounded more legitimate to make sure these influencers would respond to us.

Stephanie:

Oh, that’s crazy.

Eric:

In the early days, again, not only were brands not really doing a lot of influencer marketing, but the influencers themselves weren’t doing a lot of “influencer marketing” among sponsorship opportunities. This wasn’t as much of a business for them, where they’re already and set up to take a lot of these inbound requests. In the early days, that matchmaking process, like you said, was quite difficult. Of course, nowadays, it’s almost like a machine where everybody … if you have like 5,000 followers, you might even have a manager at this point. Yeah, in those early days, it was a lot of a lot of talking on the phone to explain who we were and what we were trying to do.

Stephanie:

Yeah. That’s great. I think that also is such an advantage that when you don’t come from the industry, it reminds me of like us building up this media company like none of us really knew what we were doing in the early days, but from your perspective, I could see a lot of people thinking about building an influencer company and being like, I need to partner with Hollywood, I need to go to CAA. There’s a certain way things are done around here. I think that’s actually a huge advantage when you don’t really know what you don’t know and you just move forward and figure it out, and maybe do it differently.

Eric:

Yeah. I think that, that definitely helped us, I would say in the later stages of the company, because by the time, like I had said, in 2016, 2017, when this took off as an industry, we were one of the few companies that have built this as a true software platform, because all of this came from technology. So, how are we going to win? We weren’t going to win because again, we were connected to the right people. So, we were just heads down, really building as much of the product we could essentially understand based on our own running of these campaigns. When the industry took off, we had assembled this immense product advantage versus a lot of our competitors that were essentially glorified agencies. Back then, I think a lot of companies were effectively … because you might come from an agency, so you think that an agency is the way to solve this problem, this matchmaking problem.

Eric:

But what we saw was something much more nuanced, which was, okay after you’ve solved the matchmaking problem, what are you going to do with these influencers, and how are you going to make this a scalable program that will last the test of time? All those things were built into, essentially how do you create almost like a CRM workflow with analytics and all the different automation that we built into it that would be relevant, frankly, for people that weren’t really doing anything back when we first started. We were basically lucky that we survived the first few years with almost like making no money, that we could make it to the maturity of the industry when our product became more relevant.

Stephanie:

Yeah, that’s good. Because some people are a little too far ahead and you guys were ahead, but you ended up making it work, which is awesome.

Eric:

Yeah, absolutely.

Stephanie:

Now that we’re talking a little bit about the future, I want to head into the future. What do you think the future of influencers looks like maybe in like five to 10 years?

Eric:

Yeah. I think that, like I said, I think influencer marketing is going to keep diversifying to … just not people who necessarily have social media following it. I think it’s going to be around who is influential for your brand specifically? Again, it could be professional, it could be experts, it could be customers. I think a lot of the brands we talk to that are on the bleeding edge, like a Glossier for example, is the gold standard, I would say, of this, who’s one of our favorite partner customers. They figured out, I think first that, it doesn’t really matter if you have this massive social following. They’ve built this community of fans, employees, even healthcare workers, things like that, and regardless of who you are, they do an incredible job of making you feel like a part of the community, probably because the brand started out of this shared love of Emily Weiss’s beauty blog.

Eric:

Regardless if you have a following on social media, they highlight a lot of their community members in their marketing. They give them exclusive first looks so they can get feedback and build buzz around new product launches. They take an active interest in pretty much what all these different communities, how they respond to products, and that shapes a lot of the strategy that Glossier has as a brand. I would say they’re one of the first, I would say community led brands. I would say that that’s going to be, what I would say is the future of, not just influencer marketing, but building commerce brands in general, because what you see now it is there’s such a dependence on third parties for a lot of ecommerce companies on generating leads from places like Facebook ads.

Eric:

That’s almost becoming this increasing tax on the cost of doing business of running ecommerce. When you’ve built an advantage for a brand like Glossier, where you almost have your own channel of your community that generates all this buzz and brand awareness and referrals that, that becomes this competitive advantage, because you can build growth without relying on third parties doing all of your lead generation. I think that’s what I’m really excited about as kind of the future of influencer marketing, but also the future of kind of commerce in the way brands will start to own their own communities and their own channels.

Stephanie:

Yeah. That’s a great answer. I think that’s the gold standard that a lot of brands probably want to figure out is like, how do you build that community that you can leverage and not always having to rely on external customer acquisition? But it’d be interesting to dive into their model of like, how do they actually build that up and build that community of fans to then have that network to launch to with their products and whatnot?

Stephanie:

All right, cool. With a few minutes left, let’s dive into the lightning round brought to you by Salesforce Commerce Cloud. This is where I’m going to throw a question your way and you have a minute or less to answer. Are you ready, Eric?

Eric:

Fantastic. Ready.

 

Stephanie:

What’s up next on your reading list?

Eric:

Ooh. I think that one book that I really love and just read is a book by Carrie Melissa Jones called Building Brand Communities. She goes into a lot about how you … similar to the Glossier example, you really need to co-create an experience of communities with shared values, kind of mutual benefit, how is your community going to interact with you as a brand? I love that book. We actually sent it to I think all of our customers.

Stephanie:

Oh, nice. I’ll have to check that out. That sounds like a good one. What is the best piece of advice you ever received?

Eric:

Yeah, I think the best advice I ever received was either from like a personal or professional level, are you growing as a person? Are you scaling? Are you developing new skills? I give that advice either to employees at the company or people who are asking you for advice. A lot of it has to do, its just kind of acceleration in any way that makes sense or is meaningful to you.

Stephanie:

I love that. That is good. What’s up next on your Netflix queue. What are you enjoying these days?

Eric:

Oh, wow. Netflix. I just started watching Killing Eve. I think it’s an older show, but that’s …

Stephanie:

Okay, is it good?

Eric:

Yeah. I love that show. I don’t know if I’m as big of a fan of Sandra Oh, but it’s a BBC show, and I love pretty much all BBC shows.

Stephanie:

Okay. I’ll have check that out. I have not even heard of that one. What do you wish you understood better right now? It could be a trend, it could be a piece of tech, anything.

Eric:

I think the thing I wish I understood better is how Silicon Valley works. What’s funny is we’ve never been kind of the favored child, I would say, of the tech industry here and in terms of raising money and things like that. I think marketing has never been the sexy object, the way crypto and those things were. I think I wish I understood the way VCs thought better.

Stephanie:

All right, Eric. Well, this has been a really fun interview. Where can people find out more about you and AspireIQ?

Eric:

Yeah. Definitely you can check out aspireiq.com/upnext. Yeah, we’ve got some interesting reading there. We’ve definitely got a case study on Purple Mattress and a bunch of other cool stuff to read.

Stephanie:

Ooh, nice. Awesome. Well, thanks so much for joining. We will have to have you back for round two, maybe even in person in the studio in the future.

Eric:

Hopefully the world works out that way. Thank you so much, Stephanie. It’s great to be on. Fun time.

Episode 57